Tuesday, June 18, 2013

BEA2013: People Say the Darndest Things

By Steve Weddle

Finally got a chance to sit down and watch the C-SPAN coverage of last month's Book Expo America.

I thought the Future of Publishing panel, while not terribly surprising overall, was filled with some good points.

WATCH HERE: A panel of graduate students in New York University’s publishing program talked about the future of publishing, particular through digital technology. They responded to questions from the audience.This event took place at the annual book publishing trade show, Book Expo America, held May 29- June 1, 2013, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City.

The idea of one department at a publishing house holding a training session for another department in order to explain "tweeting" seemed hilarious and a little sad. And, yet, how much sadder if folks needed to know this and everyone had just assumed that they already knew?

I can see a couple of old folks at the publisher sitting around, making jokes about "the twatters? is that what it's called?" and the "the facebooks on the webbernets" and all. Oh, the hilarity.

Just because Ned in marketing doesn't use Twitter doesn't mean that millions of book readers don't. So it was reassuring to hear about how people at the publishing houses are taking this seriously, are teaching each other to use whatever technology is becoming popular and useful.

Then I watched John Sargent, Macmillan's CEO, talk to the president of the American Booksellers Association. He said he doesn't have a cell phone. I got the feeling he was rather proud of this. He said if he needed to find out any information online, he could do so. He added that he'd made CD-ROMs twenty years ago, so he knew "a fair amount about the technical side of the business." (49:37)

I'd never begin to argue with the CEO of a Big Six publishing company about their business, but I would like to point out that thinking about ebooks as "the technical side of the business" rather misses the point. This would be like saying you can coach Tyler Moore out of his hitting slump because you manufactured baseball bats in the 1990s.

Of course, unlike Mr. Sargent, I don't run a giant publishing company, my father never ran a publishing company (to my knowledge), and I don't have a degree from an Ivy League school. He knows more about running that company than I'll ever imagine. I'm just this guy who reads books.

But some of the things he said stuck with me.

Mr. Sargent said that there was something "pretty magical" about having a child sit in your lap and reading to them from the printed page as opposed to a screen. (46:48) I am not sure where he thinks the "magic" comes from. I had assumed it was from the story, from the imagination, not from slices of dead trees.  Having had my children in my lap and reading to them from Harry Potter or My Little Pony, I can tell you that they didn't give a damn whether I was reading the words from a screen or from a piece of paper.

Mr. Sargent added that he preferred to sit in a chair with a lamp behind him and a print book in his lap. The people who sold print books applauded.

To me, at least, it isn't one or the other. I don't have to choose. I don't see why Mr. Sargent does, either. I read on my Kindles. I read hardbacks. I read trade and mass market. I have an Audible account. This isn't an either/or choice, in my mind. To me it's about the book, the story. And some bookstores have Google Books and Kobo eReaders prominently displayed on their sites and mentioned in their stores. That's great. I want people to read. I want them to have access to the book. And the book isn't just the sheets of paper bound together.

Applaud the book, not the paper.

If I had a vote, I'd prefer that CEO of every book publishing company read books on a cell phone, on a tablet, in paperback. I'd prefer they listened to audiobooks, too. Because I buy my books in many, many different formats from many publishers, but especially from Macmillan. Picador. Tor. Heck, Minotaur. So many books I've loved -- on my phone or in my ear -- have come from Macmillan. And so many folks who read Minotaur mysteries -- or any other book -- don't always have the luxury of hopping across the street to a bookstore.

(Again, I'm not arguing with Mr. Sargent. He seems like a nice enough man. I'm not going to assume too much about how he buys books, but I've been to Manhattan and I'm well aware that it's fairly easy to find a bookstore there. Much different than having to coordinate with your family in order to stage a drive into the city to purchase a book next weekend. Very often, by the way, the bookstore will have a copy of the book I want. And, if they don't have it, they always offer to order it online for me and have it shipped to the store so that I can drive into the city again to buy it.)

On the forward-thinking side of things, Mr. Sargent mentioned how Tor now allows DRM-free ebooks because their authors and readers are self-policing. A great step in the right direction. My contention has always been that locking something down, making it hard to get, and over-pricing it are great encouragement to piracy.

It was an odd juxtaposition, watching these two panels back to back. I'm not about to suggest that one was the future of publishing and the other the past. I don't think that's the case at all. I think each showed elements of moving ahead and of trying to stay entrenched.

As I've said often, I love bookstores, have basically grown up in bookstores, and love that many independent bookstores are in great shape. The smart folks at Politics and Prose were up at the Gaithersburg Book Festival recently and engaged in a panel moderated by the guy who started up ShelfAwareness.

2013 Gaithersburg Book Festival: Panel on Independent Bookselling
From the 2013 Gaithersburg (MD) Book Festival, a panel discussion on independent bookselling. Participants include: Mitch Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami, Florida; Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, DC; and Chris Kerr, Managing Partner at Parson Weems’ Publisher Services. The panel is moderated by John Mutter, Editor in Chief and Founder of ShelfAwareness. WATCH HERE

They talked a great deal, not about how much better the world was before Amazon ruined everything by getting books to people quickly and cheaply, but about what new ideas they are using to keep indie stores moving forward.

The bookstores that are in great shape are those that are actively engaged with readers, because that's what this is about. This isn't about the printed book or the ebook. This is about people who love stories, who love reading, who love books and authors. It's great when some folks get that. And it's super great when the shop around the corner gets it.

A while back, some stores were complaining that Barnes and Noble would put them out of business. Or Border's. Now we've got complaints against Amazon. Whether those complaints are well founded or not, success comes for the stores that think less about the competition and more about the customer. No, life ain't fair. But how can the bookstores make it unfair in their advantage? Events. Signings. Trips. Bonus Content. Personalizing the experience. On and on.

Devoting the front half of your shop to stationery and Michael Buble CDs isn't the answer, is it? I don't own an indie bookstore, so I could be completely off-base. Maybe selling CDs is the future of bookstores. I didn't know anyone bought CDs anymore. To me, there's something pretty magical about having a child sit in your lap while you're streaming music over your cell phone, both of you singing along to the latest Jason Isbell.

And maybe soon we'll get to a point that will have people cheering when all these bookstores can connect with readers in even more ways, when we can bring every book lover together in the reading community. Having QR codes for EXCLUSIVE CONTENT printed on bookmarks given away at readings. Having field trips -- like those Politics and Prose has -- to connect readers with places from their favorite books. Having more authors come in to teach writing classes. Being able to bring your Kindle (Gasp!) into a bookstore to download a book or some sort of bookstore-only content.

When I see a bookstore -- Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Books & Books in Miami or P&P in DC, for example -- that Gets It, I want to cheer.

You know, instead of applauding when someone says he doesn't have a cell phone.


Thomas Pluck said...

What a tool.
Of course he doesn't have a cell phone. He's a fucking CEO. He has minions to do all those things for him.
Sometimes publishing reminds me of whales that beach themselves on purpose. The bookstores will survive. Hell, publishing will survive. Small presses will get it and thrive, and the big ones will be propped up by the other parts of the conglomerate and books written by Michael Douglas's throat polyps.
Turning this into a techno culture war only gives credence to the argument that publishing isn't about content, but the delivery system.

Bryon Quertermous said...

Great points Steve. I also smacked my head a few times this week when I read about bookstore owners who refuse to deal with Kindles. Ignoring any segment of your business is a bad model. I'm encouraged though to see bookstore people and publishing people out there with the right idea. All it takes is for one of the big guys to get it right and see the boost in $$$ and the rest will follow eventually.

Anonymous said...

This is WHY I read books on my phone. Not only is it portable, but I can have four or five different apps for books and those apps link to multiple sources. Most of the Kindle books actually come from NetGalley, while the Kobo files come from Books & Books. I still love paper books.
I also question the sanity of "anti-cellphone" people at this point. I know a guy in a tech field who refuses to get one. I'm certain he gets passed up on opportunities because of it.